Review: Death Cab for Cutie at Ellie Caulkins, with Magik*Magik Orchestra, 4/10/12
Eric Gruneisen Death Cab for Cutie at Ellie Caulkins Opera House last night.
DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE @ ELLIE CAULKINS OPERA HOUSE | 4.10.12
Is there a science to picking a day to start a tour, or is it all some big random coincidence? Last night's Death Cab for Cutie show at the Ellie Caulkins was sold out, and it had been for a while, actually. This was the opening night of the band's spring jaunt around North America -- having recently returned from a string of shows in Australia, New Zealand and various Southeast Asian locales -- and while a Death Cab show is always a pretty big deal, this was something special.
Rather than rock an arena, Death Cab is playing the Ellie Caulkins, and befitting the venue, the guys have brought along the Magik*Magik Orchestra, or at least part of it: six violins and two cellos. Magik*Magik might sound like a perfectly suitable name for an indie-band opening act, but it's actually "a modular orchestra with a focus on collaboration." If you happened to catch the Death Cab for Cutie "Storytellers" episode on VH1, they were lending the string section for that, as well. The magikal sonic spectacle came later in the evening, however.
Upon entering the grand, vaulted space of the Ellie's auditorium, attendees were greeted by a stage set that was the pinnacle of understatement. The red curtain was closed, and in front of it stood a few cushioned metal chairs -- the kind frequently seen in church halls and banquet rooms -- with a keyboard, modest drum kit and two guitars lying atop a hard case. If there hadn't been so many people milling about, you might've assumed they'd wandered in on a rehearsal. But soon it would all make sense: Any additional setup would've seemed pretentious accompanying the introspective, dirge-like qualities of "slowcore" veterans Low.
Eric Gruneisen Alan Sparhawk of Low last night at Ellie Caulkins Opera House.
For those live-music fans more accustomed to the later starting times of club shows, it was a dire mistake to show up an hour after the posted show time -- unless you wanted to skip the opening act. The lights dimmed promptly at 8 p.m. to a scatter of cheers and whoos from the crowd. As the first note drifted out from the speakers -- a sustained, jazz-flecked guitar strum -- the stage was awash in dusky purple lights with glimmers of yellow and orange highlighting Low's Alan Sparhawk, who was seated stage left with his guitar.
It makes sense that Low hails from Duluth, Minnesota, because their sound is an ode to the contemplative nature of the Great Plains. It is the sound of an introspective look across wide flat spaces, where a person can feel how small he is and how distant he is from other people. Their set builds slowly upon itself, a bird's-eye view of the same dynamic range that makes their songs so powerful. The trio is able to provide a surprising depth of sound, which suddenly transforms quiet moments into explosions of noise.
Eric Gruneisen Low last night at Ellie Caulkins Opera House.
It's a testimony to the technical side of their minimalist approach. While there are only three, they add and subtract layers of vocal harmony, the synchronization of tom and bass note hits, and changes to Sparhawk's effects pedals to vary the urgency of any given moment. "It's our first night with these young boys and it's been tough so far," Sparkhawk joked between songs -- a dig at Low's opening for a band several years its junior. "Maybe later I'll tell you about it."
Maybe the "tough" part he was referring to was the lack of instrument stands (even the keyboard rested on one of the metal chairs), maybe he was kidding; or, maybe he was referring to some trouble with the technical set up. Rumor has it that there were some headaches involved in getting everyone's sound to fit properly within the Ellie. They were coming from larger venues and had to do some adapting. If there were issues, it had all been handled by show time. The sound throughout the evening was impeccable.